What a Way to Make a Living!

by Rex Burress

Across the river a White-tailed Kite hovered in the air, but this kite was a bird and not attached to a string.

The animal kite is once again scientifically arrayed as Elanus leucurus although for awhile it was called Elanus caeruleus or Black-shouldered Kite, which may give you some idea of its physical disposition.

The black shoulder on the whitish body was plainly visible through my eight-power binoculars as it hovered in one spot over the grassy stream embankments, its gaze riveted on the earth, following a food-gathering method kite species have practiced for ages, locked into that way of making a living by instincts so ingrained that the bird is virtually enslaved to that dimension.

It fluttered in one position more like a butterfly than a bird, its head shifting as the keen eyes scanned the jumble of ground cover, until at last it saw something, folded the wings upward, and dropped like an comet plummeting earthward. The kite disappeared into that weedy matrix where potential danger lurked, and every dive was a desperate plunge into the unknown where a larger predator might be lurking, or the ever present peril of breaking a wing on a snag.

I watched almost breathlessly to see if it had succeeded in catching something, but it arose empty-handed, and undoubtedly still hungry. What had it seen? A mouse? Certainly I can walk across that meadow and usually see no rodents - lucky to even see a lizard or an ant-lion's lair! If I had to make a living catching mice I would starve.

For 15 minutes I watched it hover, drop, come up empty-taloned five times. I felt sorry for that animal, and the tremendous effort it had to make to merely eat. Of course, the mouse doesn't want to be eaten, and mice are very alert agile creatures. The bird cruised the over-cast sky and at last dashed away to some other happy hunting ground.

What a way to make a living! The kite is not programmed to feed on plants, or even carrion like the vulture, but must hover, swoop, and hope to catch. Did you ever think about a vulture's chance of finding something dead? As far as I can see, not that many sizable animals die, unless you want to consider the gray squirrels that are constantly getting smashed on the road. What a bonanza when they find a dead cow! Then all the vultures in the county spiral in for the clean-up. What a fortunate find the annual autumnal salmon die-off has been when hundreds of vultures seemingly from all over California gather to dine on fish steaks in the Feather River at Oroville. Putrid and rotting is OK with a vulture. What slips away into the depths will nourish something else - even enrich the river as a type of fertilizer for the riparian foliage.

There are a few other birds that use the hovering method to watch for food, including kestrels and terns. You can spot some birds at a distance and recognize them merely from the way in which they fly.

For every species of animal, there is a different way to make a living. Each entity in the wild community has its own scheme to attain food for its life process. Look around and consider those diverse and intriguing life styles where each creature taps a certain segment of the environment. Look at the human being who has not only been an omnivorous forager, but also a cultivator of selected plants, tilling the earth with a variety of tools, and dedicated to the storage of food for future use. Only a few other animals have the storage habit, including the acorn woodpecker.

The habitat a particular species is stranded in dictates some of the living styles. The fish is locked into an underwater world where it prowls for animal life. Very few fish eat vegetation except the grass carp and a few others. Moles are locked into an underground life, burrowing through the soil in search of worms and grubs, and it would perish if severed from the dark corridors of its dirty realm. Gophers are also creatures of the underground, but more prone to peek out into the vegetation and sneak into grassy tangles for some select stems. Every animal you examine has an interesting and different way to make a living.

Another unusual way to make a living is displayed by the swallows and swifts, dashing around the sky snatching insects from the air in what seems to be an endless pursuit to sail and sample random entrees. The White-throated Swift rarely descends to earth but lives to fly and eat on the wing.

Some birds dive into the water to catch fish for a living. The kingfisher and tern are two prominent divers, and the tern can be seen at Lake Merritt in Oakland, as well as along the inland rivers, where they fan the air gracefully until, much like the kite, they spot food and dive. The Brown Pelican can do that too; in fact, they smash the water in a beak-first dive and open the large pouch to sort of seine the underwater prey. At the lake, there is a frenzy when a smelt run energizes pelicans, egrets, cormorants, and gulls, each feeding in a slightly different method.

Some of those water divers merely flip beneath the surface, like Canvasback ducks, goldeneye, grebes, coots, and Bufflehead. What a way to make a living! Floundering around in murky depths that is scary to even think about is not a simple existence.

What a way to make a living! The human animal ... commuting 30 miles in polluting traffic, sitting at a desk all day, working eight hours a day for 30 years, and contending with the dictation of a ruler who decides what you will do and how much. The quest is not for food directly, but for some paper that is converted at the grocery store where you obtain vegetables and meat of unknown origin. Yet, everything needs to make some kind of a living or it will die! "The earth gets its price for what the earth gives us!

© 2002 Rex Burress
April 5, 2002